Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Theology and the Body

I'm writing this from the campus of Duke University, where I am participating in the Institute for Dance Criticism as an NEA fellow at the American Dance Festival.

Watching all these moving bodies (I've so far seen 4 different dance companies and will see 2 more before I leave) leads me to some contemplation on Christian language. Jesus is the incarnation of God. We believe in the resurrection of the body. Collectively, we are the Body of Christ. The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. And at the risk of taking some literal liberties, we also speak of being made in the image of God. This might mean many things to many people, but is often illustrated with human faces (not, I'm quick to point out, human feet or hands or torsos---and I wonder if only our eyes are made in the image of God or could possibly our knees tell us something of God's image, or, for that matter our large intestines as well as our hearts).

In the room full of dance critics, there was a brief discussion of the dominant western performance dance form---ballet---and how it reflected the rigid and restrictive philosophy of the west, i.e. Christian theology. There was some contrasting discussion about, say, African dance forms, which are considered more "earthy," perhaps in part because there is a belief that the gods are in the earth, not up in heaven. Ballet is all about lifting the body upward in space, the torso rigid and all expression taking place in perfectly placed arms and legs. Beautiful, perhaps, but hardly earthy.

I listened carefully to the conversation, not really knowing what to say. I could theologically counter most of the assertions about Christianity, but I also couldn't deny the history of ballet. I simply said that this was, in part, why I preferred the 20th Century invention of Modern Dance. I love the weight of the body. I love how gravity can be played with in physical expression. Any further discussion would have led to a discussion about theology in particular and I recognized this as a slight diversion from our more focused discussion on dance, so I left it at that.

Talking about dance leads to talking about bodies. One woman reveals she wanted to be a ballerina, but was too tall. Someone mentions how beautiful another woman looked on stage, but appeared frighteningly thin close up. I don't need to detail the discussions of men in tights. None of these things have anything to do with the art of dancing and yet it is all inescapable. These are the bodies that incarnate the ideas of choreographers. These ideas, however abstract or literal, are expressed with these masses of muscle, blood, bone, and nerve. These are the bodies that entertain, challenge, entice, and repulse us.

We are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, dancers remind us of the beauty we embody. At other times, we are reminded that our beautiful bodies expectorate, defecate, copulate, ejaculate . . . stop me before I rhyme again, but you get the idea. Some of the work I've seen here in Durham has reminded me of the beauty and the disgust of the body, nearly all at once. What a mixed up piece of work we are! And yet, we hold the image of God. We are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Maybe this says something more about God than we usually like to think about.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (I amused myself by scribbling on my notebook the other day: "The dance critics motto: And the flesh became word.") I think a lot about dance in relation to incarnation. More and more, I think this has less to do with extreme flexibility and highly developed virtuosity (I appreciate both), and more to do with the deep expression of the spirit moving the muscle, blood, bone, and nerve. Spirit moves a body, taking pleasure in the moving---moving itself and moving others, in all the ways we can be moved. We find physical ways to express the inexpressible, from exuberant alleluias to groans too deep for understanding and every shade of life in between.

And that's as close to a conclusion as I can come to tonight. More fervently than usual, I invite ruminations on this topic.


  1. makes me think of a question by a dance-trained worship leader in a church i used to attend: if we say we're the Body, why aren't we moving?

    i myself favor dancing in the aisles. :)

  2. Wow, Neil, this is very interesting, especially the last graf. I have always been interested in that idea of the word made flesh, but I'd not thought of it in relation to dance. Thanks.
    Kate Dobbs Ariail

  3. Thank you, Neil. ... The psalmist says we are strangely and wonderfully made, and I often think about that. I appreciate what you have written here, particularly the last graf. Liz

  4. Great post. Spirit Incarnate, all of us...

  5. I take issue with the simplistic equation of "rigid and restrictive" with Christian theology and of either one with ballet. But dealing just with the first two terms: any theology whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish or atheist can be interpreted in a rigid and restrictive way, and Christian condemnations of dance are well known. But the Christian understanding of the human person has deep roots in the Hebrew tradition, where "body is soul in its outwardness and soul is body in its inwardness) (J.G. Davies, Liturgical Dance).This bodysoul, this somebody, is a unified being whether it's dancing ballet or modern or any kind of dance.